Volkswagen’s unbelievable Laputamobile

Volkswagen’s latest concept car is a Star Wars style landspeeder. Or is it?

I was reading James Fallows’ Atlantic magazine blog recently when I saw a startling photo of a hovering car in a post he wrote about promising new developments in personal avaiation. A flying car! How cool!

I clicked on the link, which led to an article titled “Chengdu designer creates hovering vehicle for Volkswagen” at a site called Go Chengdu. As I read the article and watched the embedded video, I began to smell something fishy.

The car was supposedly built in Chengdu, China, based on an entry in a “People’s Car Project” that solicited ideas from the public. The wheel-less vehicle flies just above the surface of the road with no visible means of support or propulsion. One of the first and biggest questions to come to my mind was, “How does it work?”

Fortunately, the video’s narrator answered that. His explanation, according to the English subtitles in the video, is that “Chengdu is geographically unique. Chengdu has a lot of unique minerals underground. The Maglev Car or the Hover Car uses cutting-edge technology. It reacts with the minerals underground to float.”

This made perfect sense. I’ve heard of this technology before. It was described in great detail by Jonathan Swift in his novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” At one point in that book, Gulliver visits Laputa, a flying island in the sky. How can an island fly? Like this:

“But the greatest Curiosity, upon which the Fate of the Island depends, is a Loadstone [magnet] of a prodigious Size … sustained by a very strong Axle of Adamant passing through its Middle, upon which it plays, and is poized so exactly that the weakest Hand can turn it…

“By means of this Loadstone, the Island is made to rise and fall, and move from one Place to another. For, with respect to that Part of the Earth over which the Monarch [of Laputa] presides, the Stone is endued at one of its Sides with an attractive Power, and at the other with a repulsive. Upon placing the Magnet erect with its attracting End towards the Earth, the Island descends; but when the repelling Extremity points downwards, the Island mounts directly upwards. When the Position of the Stone is oblique, the Motion of the Island is so too. For in this Magnet the Forces always act in Lines parallel to its Direction….

“By this oblique Motion the Island is conveyed to different Parts of the Monarch’s Dominions…

“But it must be observed, that this Island cannot move beyond the Extent of the Dominions below … [because] the Mineral which acts upon the Stone in the Bowels of the Earth, and in the Sea about six Leagues distant from the Shoar, is not diffused through the whole Globe, but terminated with the Limits of the King’s Dominions.”

In other words, Swift’s readers would be unable to duplicate Laputa’s technology at home in England, just as watchers of the hovercar video would be unable to operate a similar vehicle outside of Chengdu. You need those “unique” minerals underground. (Too bad those minerals go unnamed.)

Further arousing my suspicions, the woman who supposedly created this wondrous vehicle is identified in the Go Chengdu article not as an engineer (a background that might enable a person to build a flying car) but as a local student of animation design (a background that might enable a person to make a flying car video).

My disbelief was further strengthened by the fact that a cursory Internet search turned up no photos of the car that were not stills from the video. Surely Volkswagen would have taken lots of pictures, and surely the amazed bystanders we see in the video would have snapped it on their cell phones. Where are those images? The car was supposedly displayed at the Beijing Auto Show, but I found no photos to back that up.

Moreover, I found no reference to this car on Volkswagen’s main international website – not even on the pages dedicated to bragging about its technological innovations or “show cars.” Nor was I able to spot a photo of it at the People’s Car Project website. I admit that I did not do exhaustive searches of these sites, looking at every single page, but you’d expect such an amazing innovation to have a high profile if it were real.

I wouldn’t have spent so much time looking into this if not for the fact that James Fallows, whom I usually consider reliable, presented it with a seemingly straight face on a date other than April 1.  A bit of Googling revealed that the Huffington Post also picked up this hoaxy video and appeared to take it seriously, as did a number of blogs. To be fair, HuffPo presented it as a “concept video,” but they still wrote as if it were a realistic concept.

It’s a gag.

UPDATE (June 19, 2012): Snopes is on the case. Details here.

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